Okay so this weekend I participated in a funky one off weekend game called Ghosts in Public: The Echoing Green, this was a game run for Mish’s Birthday up at Eskmeals, so it was cold and wintery and also cosy inside with the fires, which was handy because since we were all playing ghosts we couldn’t really leave the house that much :)It was probably the most emotively powerful game I’ve ever been in for several reasons and I’m still not really feeling in a position to actually manage to effectively sum it up so I figure I’ll give it a shot and may come back to it later.
The plot was reasonably simple, a very old ghost had sort of morphed into something weirder and nastier, had forgotten everything about itself except its desire to live again and possessed a vulnerable girl with the help of a priest who’d been damaged by witnessing horror, then it attempted to threaten the weaker ghosts of the house into either getting out of its way or helping it and ate a couple of them before the start (which was a good IC mechanic to handle late character drop outs).
What happened was we eventually worked it out, tried to defeat it by getting the father (David) to throw its anchoring stone out the house, then when he felt ill we convinced him to go to hospital and take Beth (his daughter the target) with him to get her out of the way. The priest (Father James) managed to get the stone back in, and the draw of the possessing entity drew Beth back in, but we managed to help her eject the priest then perform an exorcism at the cost of 10 of our afterlives – and those who passed beyond the ghostly realms came back for one last echo before fading out in finality.
So all well and good but the thing was this was a glorious event because it was incredibly minimalist. It was set in 2001 in early January, and the family was just moving into the house, the entire set dressing was essentially a few boxes of paperwork, some cuddly toys for Beth, a couple of CD players, and a few books and family pictures. The thing that took all the focus in the game was the characters – all ghosts wearing monochromatic costumes, and their interactions with each other and the NPC living, wearing colour.
Now the interactions was what really made this game. It was intense in that the characters were not powerless but we weren’t powerful, we were trapped in the house, trapped with each other and driven by our memories of our lives and the lives of those we’d watched come after us. Incredibly wrapped up in our own personal memories but also with the knowledge that we were forgetting everything that wasn’t core to us, whittling ourselves down to our most basic desires and feelings – the only things left driving us after so long dead.
And that in many ways was the game. We looked to the older ghosts for guidance (they carried a gravitas often born from their position in the British class system) and everyone almost formed a family – with the feuding Adam’s brothers as the uncles (Nicholas and Francis), the Campbell’s as the parents (Jacob and Maria) and others forming a sort of large group of children of various generations (like the twins) right down to the squabbling children (Joyce, Anita, Denise) the youngest ghosts.
Okay that model doesn’t quite hold but anyway, roll with it :) There were a few outliers but again they sort of fit into a larger classical “big house” structure, like Father John (the confessor priest), Jousey Joe (a servant, smuggler, romantic patronaged poet perhaps), and Grace (the housekeeper) as well as sort of honoured guests like Lizzy the medium, Abigail the author.
The thing is that the oldest ghosts also showed how much of someone was going to fade away, how much their life histories would be distorted by forgetting or by the living forgetting and rewriting them as legend and rumour until even they weren’t sure what was true, so it was a double edged sword, and the antagonist of the story showed just how far you could go into forgetting everything except one driving motivation (to live) and one method of achieving your goals (power and violence).
My game was primarily centred around a lot of family based themes, when Refs had asked about characters initially they’d asked about things we couldn’t play, and I’d included a note about pregnancy and motherhood stuff being kind of a powerful subject for me, and they should take care over it. So my character (Rose Maria Boyle) was primarily based around being a double act. Rose had grown up in Ireland, been a bit of a revolutionary, fallen pregnant to her man, who’d then died in the Spanish Civil War (where he’d gone to fight fascists), she’d then spent years in a Magdalene Laundry, given birth to a child she’d named in her head as “Ruby” who was given up for adoption, her brother had finally rescued her and taken her to the house in the game, where him and his wife had nursed her as she died slowly from a lingering illness. My prep mostly was reading the sheet, a little bit of history research, chatting a bit to the player who was playing the other half of the double act, and listening to a lot of The Cranberries, particularly No Need to Argue as that provided a powerful character soundtrack hook (which I usually find helps, hang an event on an album and loop it while researching and getting into character headspace, then you can use remembering it to prompt you back into character at the start if you drift, it gives atmosphere and anchoring).
The double act comes from someone playing Joyce – a character who was tortured by almost everyone in her life to the point where she tried to push away the only person who was ever nice to her (her nanny Rita) in an effort of self destruction until RIta eventually snapped and killed her. Now Joyce spent the game referring to me as Rita and I spent the game referring to her as Ruby, and while we never quite strayed into “Mother” and “Daughter” it was pretty fucking clear what was going on.
Playing that character, one who had almost had motherhood but it had been denied her, and now she was knowingly and purposefully deluding herself into ignoring the real identity of Joyce and projecting the identity of Ruby onto her was powerful. She was caring, they were playing an essentially adopted family as both had been denied their families when alive, but neither one could quite bring themselves to actually use the words that would make it official, that would give them closure because that would be forgetting too much of the real world, that would be giving in to the delusion just a little too much and losing themselves and the underlying truth of their memories.
So yes, this was … incredibly potent for me.
And in the face of adversity they attempted to help out the other ghosts, uncover the plot, protect each other, care for each other and enjoy the patches of normality afforded to us, we ate together, made cups of tea, sat and watched the living, she attempted to get close to Beth (the living girl) and was mirroring her dancing. There was a point where David and Beth were making a fire, Ruby/Joyce was dancing behind them, and some music someone mentioned was vaguely Spanish orient was playing from Beth’s CDs (Viva Forever by The Spice Girls of all things) and that was enough to get Rose self projecting that this was the family she had been denied, self inserting herself into the position of missing wife and dammit that got me crying quietly in the chair I was sat in, in a room full of people.
Our notable plot line included watching a sunset, deciding to watch the stars together, then in the final ritual Joyce gave her soul to help free Beth so Rose followed her by giving hers as well. We got a chance to phase back in for an hour so we started out disoriented, then hugged and cried, then finally we admitted to each other that we knew all along that I was Rose not Rita, and she was Joyce and not Ruby – and we announced our recognition of the truth to people, went outside and stood in the garden watching the stars and accepting the truth of our actual situation and identities but recognising our bond, and we went and stood by Joyce’s grave (her father had buried her in the garden under a tree, cleaned up the murder scene and just left) and dissipated into whatever came next.
And that – that was just incredibly powerful to me. Sure it was in some ways it was an example of ballgowning (playing highly charged emotional relationships) but the subject matter and the fact that the woman playing Joyce plays characters in an all out fashion, combined with the safety of playing amongst friends in a known environment, and it being a one off game without any repercussions meant we were able to give ourselves quite fully to the roles and … yeah. I was crying hard throughout the last half an hour of the game, then in the ref bunker afterwards, then in conversations about the game, then the next day, and indeed the next. It was powerful, and cathartic.
So being as this has so far been a mostly self indulgent blog entry I’m going to basically bulletpoint other things I really liked about this game:
- The NPC Crew: Just 3 of them most of the time, David (the father), James (the priest), and Beth (the girl and possession target) but all three gave fantastic performances considering so much rested on them. They were joined by Carol and Richard (David’s sister and her husband) and their child (played by Mish’s sister’s family) for a few hours. Everyone turned out top notch roleplaying, ignoring the ghosts and letting us influence them, doling out plot as we listened in on their important conversations
- The power mechanics. We got energised doing various things – mostly watching the living and doing things relating to our lives and memories, so that kept us all wrapped in our melancholy but also interacting with the living. We had to organise and divide up the usages, getting some people to save up for big effects (manifestation) while others of us had to keep burning through power to keep low level effects (listening to the living in detail, influencing their emotions, minor poltergeist activity) to try and steer things
- The ghosts acting as an audience to the living in many ways, because they couldn’t see us it freed us from having to restrain our emotions, and instead many of us thus gave vent to our inner monologues and feelings. When Beth returned to the house the collective players watching called out a Big No the likes of which I’ve not seen before, and I spent much of the day tailing David around the house monologuing at him about how we could all be a big ghost/living family once we’d sorted the plot out, praising him for being good to Beth or giving him advice. This externalisation of our inner feelings I think preventing the game from getting too introspective and sad, as we felt encouraged to externalise the performance of our feelings.
- The ghosts participating invisibly in life, we occasionally ate or drank with the living, we watched them, took notes, prayed with them, read books over their shoulders – we became the ghosts of ghost stories in a very embodied way
Now the endings were super powerful for a lot of characters and I can’t give everything here but a lot of characters died, and we spent our endings in powerful ways for ourselves – wrapping up personal plots and adding sadness to the game as we faded away, or drifted and lost our memories. I can’t tell all the stories but a few that stuck with me were:
- The Brothers (Nicholas and Francis) had their big argument and reconciliation earlier, they gave themselves to save Beth and then they were done, they had fought for hundreds of years and finally reached peace
- A Sister and Cousin pair both died and faded one after the other (Anita and Denise) with last tours of the house, reliving memories, and finally Denise walking Anita into oblivion with the line “I’m right behind you” before she herself later went so I hear
- The twins (Lulu and Leo). Leo died in the ritual, and had to come back for a brief time with Lulu, who then had to watch him fade away from her again just as he had in real life. I didn’t see it but … just wow, everything I heard makes me tear up even now. I have a feeling that Lulu will be seeking a method of using the exorcism ritual we found to join Leo soon, if she doesn’t I worry she’d end up like Rose, projecting onto someone else. But yeah I imagine her working out a way to do the ritual, vanishing and getting “see, told you so” :)
- Grace finally reached a peace with the betrayal of her lover who’d murdered her, finally breaking free of the memory of him, then I hear eventually returned to perform her house keeping duties one last time, checking the door before vanishing into whatever lay beyond.
- Finally the ghosts who seemed to find new purpose. Lizzy Carrol, a medium in life seemed to find a way of carrying on being a bridge between the living and dead (she’d manifested earlier and saved Beth), and Father John the jesuit priest who acted as confessor to ghosts kept performing that role. With the brothers gone then Jacob and Maria became the oldest sort of actively social ghosts and carried on running the ghost-family, but in a house where the living knew they were there and that they were friendly creating a new ghost/living bond.
So yeah, I loved the event, I loved that it wrapped up naturally Saturday night, it wasn’t pushed or extended, it was let to play out powerfully and naturally in its own time (the only scene I wanted to see on Sunday was the ghosts and humans sitting down to breakfast in the same room, as we’d mostly eaten apart, I think that would have been a powerful image). We “won” and succeeded but at great cost, and ghosts are always tales of sadness and memory. I loved the minimalism, there were unobtrusive refs, there was just the props, costumes, and NPCs needed, and there was simple logistics of “food appears because you expect to eat” to get us to gather at mealtimes (and the food was good, grats to the kitchen ref on this one)
Personally this game will stand out for a long time as an example of what you can do by throwing everything into characters, and also as the time when I finally managed to give my all for a character and really wrestle with tough emotional topics and experience powerful feelings. It’s going to be a strong, fond, happy, bittersweet memory of a game.